Lutz's Blog: Chris Jericho, Randy Orton, Daniel Bryan and the never-ending search for WWE's No. 2 babyface
By Jeffrey Lutz
The John Cena era, now coming up on a decade, hasn't exactly been a time for other WWE babyfaces to flourish. The natural progression of some wrestlers as fan favorites, such as C.M. Punk, has been derailed either due to the insecurity of Cena himself or WWE's wish to never have anyone threaten the top spot in the company that has belonged to corporate darling and merchandise cash-cow John Cena since he first won the WWE Championship at WrestleMania 21.
Fans have been conditioned to believe that Sheamus is next in the pecking order, but after a promising heel run to start his career, Sheamus has devolved into a character who offers little alternative from Cena himself. All the elements are there _ the corny jokes often at the expense of a heel opponent who he should take more seriously, the losses that come few and far between. If Sheamus is being groomed to become the face of WWE if Cena suffers an injury or when he retires, which is unlikely because Sheamus is about the same age as Cena, very little on the landscape would change as a result.
Of course, WWE could opt to turn Sheamus heel, a move that would probably be as short-sighted as some of the other character turns over the last couple years. It seems to be WWE's M.O. to turn wrestlers from babyface to heel when their good-guy momentum is at its apex (see Punk) or to turn them babyface when they're hated enough to be similarly disliked as heroes (see The Miz and Alberto Del Rio). Cena can't be threatened if all the potential top babyfaces go heel and the babyface roster is stacked with former heels who fans don't really care about.
Someone does have to be in the second spot behind Cena, even if it's way, way behind Cena. On Raw last week -- and in most weeks -- the wrestlers who earned the greatest babyface reactions were Chris Jericho, Randy Orton and Daniel Bryan. The reasons against putting these wrestlers in the No. 2 spot might outweigh the reasons for it, but fans clearly like all three and probably want to see them positioned higher on the card.
After years of re-inventing himself with heel characters who became darker and more sinister each time he returned from hiatus, Jericho has settled into a babyface nostalgia role, and I'm OK with that. He hasn't been cheered much in the last several years, so fans likely find comfort in his familiar catchphrases, mannerisms and his often-exciting style when he wrestles as a babyface.
Jericho's primary role during his last couple returns has been to put emerging superstars over. His desire to "make" other wrestlers, his age (42) and his frequent time off to play rock and roll music with Fozzy mean his spot on the card will always be more in the middle than at the top, but he is still popular and he can still participate in meaningful feuds. I'm also OK with him winning matches occasionally against up-and-comers who need the boost a win over Jericho would create, as long as those heels emerge from those feuds stronger and better-positioned.
Orton often appears to be a character just going through the emotions until WWE satisfies his wish to become a heel, though he has been displaying more energy recently. I'm not sure exactly what it is about Orton that causes fans to cheer him -- possibly his refusal to change that shows fans a dedication to his role as the cool heel even when he's a babyface.
Orton is still quite meaningful and might even be liked by a greater segment of the audience than Cena. He should and will participate in upper-card feuds, but his two strikes against the WWE wellness policy make it questionable that he could ever have staying power as the No. 2 babyface.
That leaves Bryan. He seems perfect for the role, so WWE will probably find a way to mess it up. It appears he could be turning heel, which would follow the pattern of Punk and Ryback having their babyface momentum derailed by an untimely and probably unnecessary turn. Of course, Bryan has been derailed before -- fired, defeated in humiliating fashion at WrestleMania, turned into a comedy character -- and made it all work, so WWE should be getting the hint that fans want to see him as a top star.
With a workrate World Heavyweight Champion in Dolph Ziggler, Bryan's heel turn should at least be delayed until after these two feud. WWE might not think two smaller wrestlers could draw money, but Bryan and Ziggler could produce exciting, unique matches that fans would certainly pay to see. Bryan's fast-paced offense has become a weekly highlight of Raw, and Ziggler's ability to sell would give fans a highly entertaining series of 20-minute-or-more matches that would probably never slow down.
Whether it's Jericho, Orton or Bryan, WWE must establish a clear-cut No. 2 babyface, one who consistently threatens for the WWE and World Heavyweight titles. The fans considering leaving the product over Cena's endless reign at the top need an alternative to him, and it can't be someone who will immediately turn heel at the first sign of becoming more popular than Cena. We've long accepted that Cena isn't going anywhere, but he could certainly use some company.
Jeff Lutz has written for the Wichita Eagle newspaper in Kansas for over a decade and debuted with Prowrestling.net on November 4, 2012. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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